Tallahassee, Florida - Momentum is building at the state Capitol to make changes to Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law following the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee passed bi-partisan legislation drafted by Senators David Simmons, R-Maitland, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
The proposed bill would make three main changes to the current law. It allows police to create guidelines for neighborhood watch groups, including banning those volunteers from following or confronting potential suspects. It eliminates a ban on lawsuits by innocent bystanders injured by those who use self defense negligently. And it directs law enforcement to conduct thorough investigations even when someone claims Stand Your Ground protection.
Sen. Smith said eight years of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida show the law needs clarification because it's being misused and misinterpreted by police and courts.
"As we read about people chasing others down in Miami and stabbing them to death, as we read about school bus fights, as we read about these cases that a lot of us read and say, 'That's not a Stand Your Ground case,' courts and law enforcement are interpreting it in different ways."
Sen. Simmons, who originally wrote Florida's Stand Your Ground law in 2005, calls it "an excellent, common sense law," but admits it's not perfect. He says it's time to offer clarifications so the law is not misinterpreted in the future.
Simmons acknowledges some police agencies are not eager to offer training to neighborhood watch groups because of liability concerns, but he thinks that issue can be worked out as the bill moves ahead.
"I think that we can, as we move along in this, we can reach a consensus with local law enforcement so that we're not requiring them to in fact do the training."
Kim Keenan of the NAACP testified that the group opposes Stand Your Ground laws in all states. She said numerous studies have found Stand Your Ground laws do not deter crime and they create racial disparities in criminal cases.
"Defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person were found not guilty 59 percent of the time. Such findings show it's harder for black defendants to assert a Stand Your Ground defense if the victim is white and easier for whites to raise if the victims are black. This is about creating a world that isn't just the wild, wild West."
Members of the Dream Defenders, who staged a 31-day sit-in this summer at the state Capitol over Florida's self defense laws, testified for a repeal of the Stand Your Ground law.
Ky'Eisha Penn said the group opposes the law because it does not require a person to retreat when confronted by a threat - that was the old requirement in Florida before Stand Your Ground passed in 2005.
"A society that isn't encouraging a responsible duty to retreat is therefore encouraging pretty much reckless violence and meaningless acts."
Sen. Chris Smith agrees with the Dream Defenders on the duty to retreat issue.
"I fundamentally just believe that there should be a duty to retreat. I voted against it in 2005 and I still fundamentally believe that there should be a duty to retreat. But this process is about working together and coming up with common ground."
Smith has worked with Simmons for months to design a new version of Stand Your Ground for Florida. He said his time with Simmons over the summer showed him the two men agreed much more on the issue than they disagreed.
They filed similar bills earlier this year but they did not advance in the Legislature. So now they have melded their individual bills into a compromise version, but concede it still needs work.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was not sold on the compromise and voted against it.
"I think it's got a long way to go. I'm not prepared to support it. I'm not hearing from people in my community that think it needs to be changed, from law enforcement as well as citizens. So it was a pretty easy vote for me today."
Marion Hammer of the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida believes clarifying the law is an empty effort because she thinks it will just lead to more misinterpretations.
"So if we think we're going to accomplish a lot by putting clarification in a bill now, I suggest that's probably not going to work because it'll be misinterpreted down the line and we'll be back again."
In the Senate, the bill heads next to the Criminal Justice Committee. In the House, any effort to change the Stand Your Ground law will face a tougher test.
Below is a statement from Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and Attorney Benjamin Crump regarding the hearings on stand your ground:
Today in Tallahassee the democratic process won out and a first compromise was reached," said Attorney Benjamin Crump who represents Trayvon Martin's family.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 to forward a bill that made some important changes to Florida's Stand Your Ground law. This will ensure proper investigations are conducted even when Stand Your Ground is claimed, involve Police and Sheriff's Departments in training Neighborhood Watch Programs and most importantly tighten the use of the law when aggressors claim it.
"I see this as an important first step in making sure that Florida's Stand Your Ground Law properly protects victims and applaud the committee for taking this first step" said Crump. "In light of current events in Washington D.C., It is refreshing to see legislators compromising and working together so that Florida's citizens are protected."
"Tracy and I have said from the beginning that our hope is that the tragedy of Trayvon's death can be turned into real change so that other parents don't have to experience the grief we have endured" said Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin. "The work here is not done and we fear an uphill battle going forward to achieve real change in our son's name. We encourage everyone to visit changefortrayvon.com and help us ensure that real change for Trayvon occurs in Florida and other states across the country."